Heroes and Danger: A Role-Playing Game for Pre-Literate Children


In the summer of last year I babysat once a week for a family of three kids: four, six, and eight years old. Being an adult nerd I see it as my personal responsibility to bring up the next generation, so I looked around for a tabletop role-playing game suitable for children. As far as I could tell, the kids' games on the market (for instance, Mermaid Adventures) were geared toward a slightly older age group—kids with a firm grasp on reading and basic math. So, I set out to design a game suitable for kids as young as four.

Originally I'd hoped to come up with something I could publish for profit, but in each iteration I removed more and more from the rules until now they would fit comfortably on an index card. Or—along with some GM advice—in this blog post. I call my system Heroes and Danger.

The Rules

One adult (or older and more mature youngster) is the Game Master, and up to three or four kids or adults are players. This system places a lot of responsibility on the GM, so it's recommended that the GM have at least some role-playing experience and preferably GMing experience.

We start with character creation. Each player makes up a character, making a picture in the process. This is a good time to get out the crayons, markers, etc. The character can be pretty much anything: a princess, a wizard, an astronaut, a jaguar. But the characters have to all be on the same team. (That doesn't mean they always get along.) In our campaign we had a princess who could transform into a mermaid, another princess who could transform into a flying unicorn, and "Zombie Man" (a gravelly-voiced Minecraft zombie along with his pet cheetah). During character creation the GM should help guide the players to make characters that can do awesome things, but are not all-powerful. At this stage it's helpful to suss out a few specific awesome things each character can do, but it's not necessary to exhaustively catalog their abilities or limitations. These can be fleshed out during play. (In this game system there are no stats, nor any other crunchy game mechanics around character creation.) Each character should have her name written on the sheet, by the child if possible.

The next step is drawing a map. This step can be repeated for each adventure, or maps can be reused. The GM takes the lead, sketching out the basic shape, scale, and context of the map, and adding a few details to set an example. Then everyone chips in, taking turns adding details: volcanoes, pirate ships, towns, roads, trains, castles, shuttle launch pads, whatever. In addition to geographic details, you're also welcome to draw in some of the denizens of the map's areas: tigers, fairies, ghosts. This is a good time to get out the stickers. I've also found that Rory's Story Cubes—especially the Voyages set—can provide great inspiration for map features.

And now the game proper can begin. The GM should set the stage in one or two sentences. It's not necessary to work too hard to explain why the player characters are together—just skip to the action, giving the PCs a very explicit call to adventure. I've found it works best to use both the carrot and the stick: the promise of wonders and treasures untold, and a sympathetic character in peril or a looming threat to the world. In any case the adventure should lead them into the most dangerous place in the collaboratively-drawn map, but should allow some choice in the specific path to get there.

When one of the player characters gets into a tricky situation—whether because she's attempting something dangerous or because she's trying to dodge the danger coming at her—the GM directs that player to roll a single six-sided die.

A high roll means Heroism: the outcome in the story showcases the character's heroic awesomeness. The hero dodges danger—because she is awesome and heroic—and perhaps gains some other benefit in the process: a minor treasure, a situational advantage for a teammate, etc.

A low roll means Danger: the outcome in the story spells major trouble for the character or her friends—because the adventure is exciting and dangerous. The character does not necessarily fail at what she was trying to do. She might succeed, leading her out of the frying pan and into the fire: "Just as you zap the spider with your wand, turning him into a cloud of bubbles, the door bursts open and a thousand more spiders pour out, crawling toward you! What do you do?" If she fails, she must not merely fail—there must be some new complication, some change in the situation. In any case the emphasis is not on the character's shortcomings but on the awesomely dangerous world she inhabits, and the exciting challenges she confronts. When she eventually triumphs this will make the hero feel even more heroic. In the meantime it heightens the tension without making the player feel as bad.

At the GM's discretion, a middling roll can either mean "the plot thickens" (the hero avoids danger for now but the situation gets more complicated) or it can mean that the hero squeaks out of danger but in a way that highlights just how dangerous it was. In any case, no roll should ever have a boring result, especially not "nothing happens". The story must move forward. Whether toward danger or triumph, every roll should push it in an exciting direction.

Though the GM shouldn't broadcast it, the heroes can't die. There are no health points. Low rolls send the heroes—or the people, places, and things they cherish—ever deeper into danger. This could include injuries, but any injuries or other constraints shouldn't prevent the hero from being heroic or getting to make impactful choices. (When danger bears consequences for the character, be sure not to punish the player.) Instead of injuries it's usually more fun to make the external situation bigger and scarier, or to impose magical maladies. A knight getting a broken leg is boring and depressing, and slows down the story. A knight getting transmogrified into a bunny is exciting and funny, and plunges us deeper into the story. It's no less troublesome for the knight.

There are no "combat rules". Fighting is just another dangerous situation, resolved in the same way as any other. I prefer not to glorify violence—usually it's a better fate for the heroes if they can run away or diffuse a conflict. But some villains are villainous enough to initiate violence and refuse diplomacy, and I let the players choose how their characters will respond. (And of course, like in any RPG group, some player characters will unleash totally unjustified violence on random bystanders. This is a great way to make enemies.)

If the characters team up for a challenge (e.g. they all try to carry a huge treasure chest over their heads while wading through an alligator-infested swamp), have them all roll simultaneously. If the situation demands that the characters succeed or fail as one, then interpret the results as one mega-roll. (Just estimate the average result and use that number.) If they could each have separate outcomes, interpret the results separately. If a danger threatens multiple characters simultaneously (e.g. a magical cyclone), first have each player describe how their character will respond to the danger, then have them roll simultaneously, and then interpret the results accordingly.

It's totally up to the GM's discretion whether a dangerous situation should be resolved through just one roll, or broken down into more specific challenges. Sometimes multiple rolls can be more exciting (and more satisfying, when the danger is finally escaped), but they can also stretch the players' attention spans, especially if only some of the characters are involved. So it's best to read the room as well as the narrative.

As the GM guides the narrative he should showcase different players' contributions to the map, especially those they're most proud of or excited about. But it's not necessary to incorporate every location or every detail. And the GM should feel free to add to the world on the fly, either by drawing more on the map or just by including more in the narrative. In particular it can be fun to add twists to what the players came up with: "Ah, but what you didn't realize is that this town... is a ghost town! [draws ghosts on map]" Just don't reject their creative inputs.

As in any RPG the GM should provide ample opportunities to show off the characters' unique and epic abilities. It can also be fun to find weaknesses, so long as the emphasis is placed on the danger of the quest and the necessity of teamwork, not on the characters' deficiencies. (Despite the complete randomness of a roll and subjectivity of the GM's decisions, young children will tend to take their characters' failures personally.)

Not including character and map creation, shoot to finish a complete adventure in half an hour. Better to leave the kids wanting more than to push their limits. Remember, they're willingly ceding some of their agency to yield to the GM's rule and to each other's inputs. Best not to ask too much in a single stretch.

And... that's about it!

GM Aide: Results Table

Consult this table to help improvise the result of a die roll. (These are just guidelines.)

  1. The danger gets even bigger in a way nobody could have anticipated—this adventure is really exciting!
  2. The danger gets even bigger—this adventure is really exciting!
  3. Nothing really bad happens yet but the dangerous situation gets a little trickier!
  4. The hero narrowly avoids danger, but it's really scary!
  5. The hero avoids danger, looking awesome in the process!
  6. The hero avoids danger, looking awesome in the process, and gets an unforeseen bonus!

Notice that every result has an exclamation point. If you're not going to make the result exciting no matter what, don't bother making the player roll the die—just move the story forward. Let her succeed automatically (and heroically), or raise the stakes.

Notes from the Field

In general I think role-playing comes more naturally to kids than to adults. The tricky part for kids is abiding by the rules. In this game there are really only four rules:

  1. You have to all be on the same team.
  2. You have to roll the die when the GM says so, and accept the result.
  3. You have to let everyone else have a turn.
  4. You have to accept what the GM says.

The girls (the four- and six-year-olds) struggled with all four, but their eight-year-old brother helped them through it. In one instance when he rolled a one, he made a point to demonstrate himself grinning, eyes wide with anticipation, then explained to the girls (who had been pouting or trying to cheat when they rolled low) that he liked rolling ones because it made the story more exciting. (It's on the GM to make sure that's true.)

As for taking turns, the burden falls to the GM to shift focus around the table, making sure everyone gets a chance in the spotlight, and to keep reminding everyone to pay attention on everyone else's turns. Early on, jealous of each other's time in the spotlight, the kids were rooting for each other to fail and laughing at each other's low rolls. I made a point to demonstrate in the narrative that one character's triumph or peril also helped or hurt the others, so they'd become more invested in each other's turns. Also, when one character got in trouble, I would ask the next player how her character was going to help him out. After a while, the kids started rooting, "Come on, six, six, six, six, six," on every roll, and then whooping and high-fiving or even running around the table for hugs on high numbers—or shoulder-patting and consoling on low numbers. (I would love to see adult players get that excited about the dice.) By that point I felt comfortable splitting the party and giving the characters individual challenges, juggling the focus among their separate, simultaneous scenes.

In our game our youngest player's character had fairly open-ended magic powers. At several points she invented new, all-too-convenient abilities. Our oldest player complained—he'd willingly and specifically put limitations on his character, Zombie Man—but I reminded him that his sister would have to roll the die. After all, magic can be dangerous. Eventually, she became more reserved in her use of magic, and he introduced some new talents for Zombie Man until he no longer felt she had an unfair amount of awesomeness.

Sometimes kids will jump in and insert some all-too-convenient detail into the world: "Reaching into the treasure chest, you find a glowing red gem!" "And I find a magic carpet!" "Um." In this case, rather than saying no I find it's best to play the "Yes, but" card. Add a complication: the chest is trapped, or the magic carpet has a stubborn will of its own, or someone else wants it back. When players (rarely) insert new dangers into the world, I try to "Yes, and" them. But it's okay to say no sometimes, as long as you don't make them feel like their idea was bad. (Use their idea later if you can.)

To help the kids connect to what's happening in the story and to give them a clear sense of direction, I find it's easiest to populate the world with obvious, kid-familiar tropes: good heroes, innocent victims, scary caves, evil monsters, shiny treasures. Mostly these should be played straight, without ambiguity. But occasionally, it's fun for everyone to upset expectations. In our game I included a witch: black hat, broom, cottage, warts and all. I meant for her to be a villain, but before she could do anything villainous, the player characters attacked her. So I changed my mind about making her a villain, deciding instead to make the witch self-righteously accuse the characters of prejudice against witches—of being bad guys. That threw the players for a loop. Even the four-year-old paused to puzzle over whether her princess character should fight the witch or not.

In my experience, kids will almost never fail to take the bait when it comes to obvious, lavishly-described treasures: glistering gemstones, glowing jewels, and golden anythings, optimally in huge jewel-encrusted treasure chests. These don't cost the GM a thing, and they don't even confer any actual benefit to the characters, so go nuts. Lead those greedy heroes into danger again and again. When they do get the treasure—now you have something they value that this dangerous world can threaten to take away, leading them further into danger.

Previous Versions

Early on, I tested a much more complicated version of the game, with character stats like Running, Jumping, Climbing, Building, etc., each represented on the character sheet with its name and a stick figure icon. Next to each stat was a space where the player could put die stickers. Each character was allotted a certain number of stickers (each a picture of a blue die) to distribute among her skills. The dice were custom-made: six-sided, but with half the sides blank and the other half showing one star each. (In other words they were functionally two-sided dice.) We had blue dice—representing character skill—and red dice—representing the trickiness of the situation. When it came time to roll, the player would grab the die cup and add as many blue dice as she had stickers for the appropriate skill, and as many red dice as the GM demanded for the difficulty of the challenge. Then she'd roll. Blanks would be ignored, and stars on blue dice would cancel out stars on red dice. If stars on blue dice remained, the outcome was heroic (proportionate to the number of stars). If stars on red dice remained, the outcome was troublesome (likewise). If no stars remained, the outcome was a little of each. I found the whole system way too complicated for a four-year-old and pushing the limits of a six-year-old—I had to explain the rules again during each roll. Also, I quickly found the codified skill list too restrictive. (For instance, I had Running, Jumping, and Climbing skills, but right away someone wanted to be able to fly.)

The next version we playtested was almost the same as the final version, but with four Fate Dice instead of a d6. Still, this was too complicated to interpret, and for small hands, four dice required a cup. Between rolls, the kids argued over who got to hold the cup and the dice. During rolls, they shook the cup much longer than necessary just to make noise and irritate each other.

The next time we switched to one Fate die. Each player got to hold their own die. This worked great. But after that I decided to change it to a d6, for three reasons: the pips are more intuitive for children than the Fate die's + and -, the d6 gives a wider range of possible results, and most importantly, with a common d6 I wasn't terrified that the kids would hurl my expensive Fate die (purchasable only in matching sets of four normally used together) into some crevice of the creaky old house that I could never reach.

Whatcha Think?

Have you played RPGs with young, pre-literate children? If so, what challenges did you face? Would this system work for the kids in your life?

At some point I may decide to format this game as a one-page RPG or a PocketMod, in PDF format. Or perhaps a print product with a sticker book. If those are things you'd like to see happen, let me know! If you play this game, let me know how it goes!